with permission, MV Times

by Nelson Sigelman

Aquinnah voters will be asked to dig deep next week. Town leaders need taxpayers to hand over an additional $100,000 to cover operating expenses for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

On Tuesday, voters gather at 7 pm in the Aquinnah old town hall to take up a bare-bones, 16-article annual warrant (available at mvtimes.com) that includes a $2.9 million operating budget.

On Wednesday voters go to the polls to elect town officers in an election with no races and to decide on a Proposition 2.5 request for an additional $100,000 in taxes.

The Aquinnah operating budget will rise by approximately 3 percent to $2,899,621 in fiscal year (FY) 2010. Much of that increase is attributable to school expenses, regional assessments and insurance costs.

At the same time, the town has seen revenue drop, said Jeff Burgoyne, town administrator. Parking lot revenue and interest payments are off.

In years past so-called free cash has provided a last-minute life ring. Town accountant Marjorie Spitz said the town has not received a certified figure from the state Department of Revenue, but in any case it would be a minimal amount and not enough to cover cash needs.

The rise in fixed costs and Aquinnah’s traditional reluctance over the years to approve Proposition 2.5 requests has left the town with little breathing room.

The warrant includes an opportunity for voters to decide to maintain the current up-Island Regional School District agreement, already agreed to by Chilmark and West Tisbury, or opt for the state’s so-called statutory assessment method.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, selectman Camille Rose said selectmen and department heads cut the budget “right to the bone.” The salaries reflect only step increases and no cost of living adjustments (COLAs), she said. In many cases, departments are level-funded or below this year’s budget.

Ms. Rose said that despite efforts to restrain costs and look at every line item in the budget the town still needs an additional $100,000. “Which is a little scary,” she said. “If it gets turned down by the voters I don’t know where we are going to go for the money. I know it is a cliché but we are literally going to be looking at cutting services which are kind of minimal as it is.”

With hindsight, Ms. Rose said the town might have been wise in the past to approve Prop 2.5 requests. She said one alternative may be to look at some regional costs, and that includes the Shellfish Group assessment. “But that’s only $30,000, and if voters decide to accept the statutory assessment for the up-Island school district we could save another $40,000 there,” she said, “but traditionally they have honored the agreement.”

The FY 2010 budget that will be presented to voters includes numerous department cuts. For example, the town saved $7,000 on the line item identified as consultant fees in the selectmen’s department. In all, the cost of general government will decline by $50, from $461,952 in FY 2009 to $467,970 in FY 2010.

Under the heading, Land Use, which includes the Martha’s Vineyard Commission assessment of $39,313 and the planning board budget, the town will spend $39,313, a drop of $1,706.

The police department budget will decline from $402,317 to $398,752. In total, public safety, which includes the fire department, ambulance service, and harbormaster’s office, will cost the town $617,113, an increase of $5,439, mostly attributable to an increase in the Tri-town ambulance assessment of $103,681.

As it traditionally does, education will lay claim to the largest share of tax dollars. The elementary school assessment will rise from $563,244 to $607,863. The regional high school assessment will rise from $318,020 to $324,068. The total cost of education would rise from $881,264 to $931,931.

The cost of employee benefits continues to rise. Insurance will jump from $192,747 to $230,136. The total cost of employee benefits will rise from $318,003 to $357,749.

Voters will take up a warrant with a number of requests to appropriate existing money but only two requests to raise new money, both tied to county services.

Articles six and seven pertain to community preservation committee (CPC) requests to allot community preservation act funds.

The CPC will ask voters to approve expenditures for various projects, including $10,000 to repair the Gay Head Lighthouse; $11,520 for mortgage costs related to the restoration of the town library; and $10,000 for the extension of the brick walkway at the Gay Head cliffs.

Last year, the town cleared a long overgrown public right of way to Squibnocket Pond. But there was a problem. The town cleared a path on private property. The warrant includes a request to appropriate $5,000 from the waterways fund for surveying and clearing the town’s right of way.

The only money requests would help cover the costs of operating two county departments, previously included in the Dukes County budget.

The county’s draft 2010 budget calls for spending $69,542 on pest control and $90,469 on health care access. Aquinnah taxpayers will be asked to contribute $1,972 to health care access and $1,152 to pest control.

In the next fiscal year, the county commissioners want to reduce the county’s contribution to 40 percent of the budgets for these items and increase the towns’ contributions to 60 percent of the overall costs. The eventual aim is that the towns will fully fund both programs. That money taxpayers contribute would be in addition to the county’s annual assessment, $27,364 in FY 2010.